Lewis Hamilton has asked Mercedes for a new three-year contract, a deal that would tie him to the world champion team until 2021.
The Mail on Sunday understands Hamilton is likely to be granted his wish — with only the money left to be haggled over — despite Mercedes chairman Niki Lauda letting slip that he spoke to Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel about bringing him in as a replacement for the Briton.
However, any final chance of Vettel moving to Mercedes was extinguished yesterday when Ferrari announced that the German had agreed to stay for three years beyond the current season.
These were the behind-the-scenes shenanigans on a day of outward emotion in Spa, where Hamilton equalled the 68 poles set by Michael Schumacher, one of a near monopoly of records that stand as giant monuments to his legend.
But before Hamilton wiped away his tears after his history-making feat, Lauda’s frank admission that Mercedes had courted Vettel prompted team principal Toto Wolff to contradict his fellow Austrian, an apparent cover-up job that reeked of desperation.
Lauda had said: ‘We discussed it briefly with him (Vettel) but the more competitive Ferrari got the less reason he had to leave. So, therefore, we stopped right away a couple of months ago.
‘I think every driver, if he’s clever, talks to more than one team. Then when you negotiate you’re in a better position. That’s what he did.’
But Wolff, who attended Vettel’s 30th birthday party as recently as July, then said: ‘I think it is a bit of miscommunication.
‘We never once had negotiations with Vettel. Zero. I think what Niki was referring to was they crossed each other in the paddock and he asked Seb what he is doing next year.’ Pull the other one, Toto!
Why, if they talked once by chance, did Lauda measure the time since the conversation stopped in months? Wolff added later that the two parties ‘never discussed contracts’. It appears highly unlikely that they got as far as talking numbers or terms, and that the interest was of a ‘let’s stay in touch’ type. But, to this witness, he was taking refuge in farcical sophistry.
Vettel’s reward for staying at Ferrari is in the region of £110million — a figure similar to the one Hamilton can now expect to negotiate at Mercedes. Neither driver nor team has any plausible option other than to recommit to the other.
The timing of Vettel’s extension was strange given that only 48 hours earlier he had insisted publicly at Ferrari’s own press conference that there would be no announcement about his future this week or at Monza next. And these Formula One wallahs expect us to take them at their word!
Lauda, one of the few giants remaining at the helm of a sport that is becoming a corporate pastiche of itself, shoots straight from the hip without favour of fear, and thank heavens for that.
Another old great, Schumacher, could not be here, of course. He has not been seen in public since he hit his head skiing three-and-a-half years ago, but his former boss and close friend, Ross Brawn, was on hand to convey a touching tribute.
Immediately after Hamilton had taken pole by a commanding quarter-of-a-second, Brawn said: ‘I am here to deliver a very special message from Corinna Schumacher and the Schumacher family. They want to congratulate you on equalling Michael’s record. As Michael always said, records are there to be beaten, so they want to send their very special thanks. Well done.’
Hamilton welled up, and then said: ‘It is definitely a special day. I knew it was on the horizon and at some stage I would get the 68th pole.
‘I did not apply pressure, but now it is an unusual place to be.
‘I remember coming to Spa in 1996 for my first grand prix, and watching Michael come out of turn one, and the vibration of the engine shook my rib cage. It was incredible. That is when my love for the sport took another step.
‘Now, to think I have equalled him on poles is very surreal and very much a humbling experience.’
It was fitting that the landmark was reached here at Spa. Three letters that stand for so much in the Schumacher story: where he made his debut, where he scored his first victory, where he won six times.
I'm honoured to have raced with you. Equaling your pole position record is a dream come true. I pray for you and your family all the time-LH pic.twitter.com/dtopvF5zvZ
Sharing the front row with Hamilton will be championship-leader Vettel, who told his own stories of how he worshipped Schumacher. Behind them comes Valtteri Bottas, who is almost certain to be retained as Mercedes’ second driver.